|Benigaris returned shortly to pronounce the messengers dispatched. Duke Leobardis let the trumpets ring out, then sound again, and the great army set out at speed. Their hoofbeats sounded, rolling like rapid drumbeats in the meadow-dells as they passed out of the Inniscrich. The sun rose in the muddy morning sky, and the banners streamed blue and gold. The Kingfisher flew to Naglimund.
Josua was still pulling on his unadorned, bright-polished helm as he went through the gate at the head of two-score mounted knights. The harper Sangfugol ran alongside, holding something up to him; the prince reined in and slowed his horse to a walk.
"What, man?" he asked impatiently, scanning the misty horizon.
The harper struggled for breath. "It is... your father's banner, Prince Josua," he said, passing it up. "Brought... out of the Hayholt. You carry no standard but Naglimund's gray Swan—what better one for yourself could you wish?"
The prince stared at the red and white pennant, half-unfolded in his lap. The firedrake's eye glared sternly, as if some interloper threatened the sacred Tree about which it had-enwrapped itself. Deornoth and Isorn, with a few of the other knights nearby, smiled expectantly.
"No," said Josua, handing it back. His look was cold. "I am not my father. And I am no king."
He turned, wrapping the reins around his right arm, and lifted his hand.
"Forward!" he shouted. "We go to meet friends and allies!" He and his troop rode down through the sloping streets of the town. A few flowers, thrown by well-wishers from atop the castle walls, fluttered into the churned, muddy roadway behind them.
"What do you see there, Rimmersman?" Towser demanded, frowning. "Why are you mumbling so?"
Josua's small force was now only a colorful blur, fast disappearing in the distance.
"There is a troop of mounted men coming along the hem of the hills to the south," Jarnauga said. "It looks from here not a large army, but they are still distant." He closed his eyes for a moment as if trying to remember something, then reopened them, staring into the distance.
Towser reflexively made the sign of the Tree; the old Rimmersman's eyes were so bright and shone so fiercely, like lamps of sapphire!
"A boar's head on crossed spears," Jarnauga hissed, "whose is it?"
"Guthwulf," Towser said, confused. The Rimmersman might have been watching phantoms, for all the horizon revealed to the old jester. "Earl of Utanyeat—the King's Hand." Farther down the wall the Lady Vorzheva stared wistfully after the prince's vanishing horsemen.
"He comes from the south, then, ahead of Elias' full army. It looks as though Leobardis has seen him: the Nabbanai have turned toward the southern hills, as though to engage him."
"How many... how many men?" Towser asked, feeling ever more muddled. "How can you see such a thing, now? I see nothing, and my sight's the one thing that hasn't..."
"A hundred knights, perhaps fewer," Jarnauga interrupted. "That's what is troubling: why are they so few...?"
"Merciful God! What is the duke up to?" Josua swore, rising in his stirrups to gain better vantage. "He has turned east and is galloping full tilt toward the southern hills! Has he lost his wits?!"
"My lord, look!" Deornoth shouted across to him. "Look there, on the skins of Bullback Hill!"
"By the love of the Aedon, it's the king's army! What is Leobardis doing? Does he think to attack Elias unsupported?" Josua slapped his horses neck and spurred forward.
"It looks a small force only, Prince Josua," called Deornoth. "An advance party, perhaps."
"Why didn't he send riders?" the prince asked plaintively. "Look, they will try and push them toward Naglimund, to trap them against the wall. Why in God's name did Leobardis not send riders to me?!" He sighed and turned to Isorn, who had pushed his father's bear-helm back from his brow to better scan the horizon. "Now we will have our mettle tested after all, friend."
The inevitability of fighting seemed to have drawn serenity over Josua like a mantle. His eyes were calm, and he wore an odd half-smile. Isorn grinned over at Deornoth, who was loosening his shield from his saddle pommel, then looked back to the prince.
"Let them test it, Lord," said the duke's son.
"Ride on!" the prince shouted. "The despoiler of Utanyeat is before us! Ride!" So crying, he spurred his piebald charger into a gallop, making the sod spun beneath the horse's hooves.
"For Naglimund!" Deornoth shouted, lifting his sword high. "For Naglimund and our prince!"
"Guthwulf is standing fast!" Jarnauga said. "He holds on the hillside, even as the Nabbanai come against him. Josua has turned to meet them."
"They are fighting?" Vorzheva asked, frightened. "What is happening to the prince?"
"He has not reached the battle—there!" Jarnauga was striding down the wall toward the southwestern turret. "Guthwulf's knights take the first charge of the Nabbanai! It is all confusion!" He squinted and knuckled his eyes.
"What?! What?!" Towser put a finger in his mouth, staring and gnawing. "Do not go silent on me, Rimmersman!"
"It is hard to make out what happens from this far," said Jarnauga, unnecessarily, for neither of his two companions, nor anyone else on the castle walls could see anything but a faint smear of movement in the shadow of misty Bullback Hill. "The prince bears down on the fighting, and Leobardis' and Guthwulf's knights are scattered along the hillslopes. Now... now..." He trailed off, concentrating.
"Ah!" said Towser in disgust, slapping his skinny thigh. "By Saint Muirfath and the Archangel, this is worse than anything I can think of. I might as well read this in... in a book! Damn you, man—speak!"
Deornoth found it all unfolding before him as in a dream—the murky shimmer of armor, the shouting and the muffled crash of blade on shield. As the prince's troop bore down on the combatants, he saw the faces of the Nabbanai knights come slowly up, and the Erkylanders' too, an eddy of surprise rippling out through the battle at their approach. For a timeless instant he felt himself a fleck of shining foam, prisoned at the crest of a hanging wave. A moment later, with a shocking roar and clash of arms, the battle was all around them, as Josua's knights came full against the flank of Guthwulf's Boar and Spears.
Abruptly there was someone before him, a blank, helmeted face above the rolling eyes and red mouth of a war-charger. Deornoth felt a blow to his shoulder that rocked him in his saddle; the knight's lance struck his shield and slid away. He saw the man's dark surcoat before him for an instant, and swung his sword with both hands, feeling a shivering impact as it caromed past the shield and struck the knight's chest, toppling him from his steed down into the mud and bloodied grass.
For a moment he was clear; he looked around, trying to find Josua's banner, and felt a distant throb in his shoulder. The prince and Isorn Isgrimnur's son were fighting back to back in the midst of a swirling surge of Guthwulf's knights. Josua's swift hand darted out, and Naidel pierced the visor of one of the black-crested horse-men. The man's hands flew to his metal-clad face, covered in an instant with red, then he was yanked down out of sight as his reinless horse reared.
Deornoth saw Leobardis, the duke of Nabban, sitting his horse at the farthest southeastern edge of the battle beneath his billowing kingfisher flag. Two knights held their balking horses close by, and Deornoth guessed the large one in the chasework armor to be his son, Benigaris. Damn the man! Duke Leobardis was old, but what was Benigaris doing on the fringe of things?! This was war!
A shape loomed before him, and Deornoth spurred left to dodge a downrushing battleaxe. The rider blew past, untuming, but was followed by another. For a while all was swept from his head but the dance of stroke on stroke as he traded blows with the Utanyeater; the clangor of the field seemed to subside to a dull rush, like the sound of falling water. At last he found an opening in the man's guard and crashed a swordstroke against his helm, crumpling it in at the visor-hinge. The knight toppled sideways and off, his foot caught in the stirrup so that he hung like a butchered hog in a pantry. His maddened horse dragged him away.
Earl Guthwulf, black-mantled and black-helmeted, was now only a stone's throw away, dealing blows left and right with his great broadsword, holding off two blue-coated Nabbanai horsemen as if they were boys. Deornoth leaned down in his saddle to spur toward him—what glory, to trade blows with the Monster of Utanyeat!—when a toppling horse beside him spun his own mount around.
Pausing, still as muddled as if he dreamed, he found he had been driven down the hill toward the outer edge of the battle. The blue and gold banner of Leobardis was before him; the duke, white hair streaming from beneath his helm, stood high in the stirrups shouting exhortations at his men, then pulled his visor down over his bright eyes, preparing to spur forward into the fray.
The dream turned to nightmare as Deornoth watched. The one whom he took for Benigaris, moving so slowly that Deornoth almost felt he could reach out a hand and stop him, pulled back his long blade and carefully, deliberately, pushed it into the back of the duke's neck under the helm. In the milling crowd, with the battle crashing all around them, it seemed that no one but Deornoth saw this terrible act. Leobardis arched his back as the blade was withdrawn, scarlet-streaked, and brought trembling, gauntleted hands up to his throat, holding them there for a moment as if trying to speak through some all-swaying grief. A moment later the duke sagged forward in his saddle, leaning into his horse's white neck and smearing the mane with his unprisoned blood before rolling off his saddle to the ground.
Benigaris looked down for a moment, as if contemplating a bird tumbled from its nest, then tugged his horn to his lips. For a moment, with shouting chaos on every side, Deornoth thought he saw a gleam in the black slot of Benigaris' helmet, as if the duke's son caught his eye across the heads of all the fighting men between them.
The horn sounded, long and harsh, and many heads turned.
"Tambana Leobardis eis!" Benigaris bellowed, his voice a dreadfill thing, ragged and sorrowful. "The Duke is downl My father is killed! Fall back!"
He sounded the horn again, and even as Deornoth stared in unbelieving horror there came another horn call from the hillside above them. A line of armored horsemen sprang out of the shadowed concealment of the trees.
"Lights of the North!" Jarnauga groaned, sending Towser into another paroxysm of frustration.
'Tell us! How goes the battle!?"
"I fear it is lost," the Rimmersman said, his voice a hollow echo. "Someone has fallen."
"Oh!" Vorzheva gasped, tears standing in her eyes. "Josua! It is not Josua?!"
"I cannot tell. I think it may be Leobardis. But now another force of men comes down the hillside, out of the trees. Red-coated, on their banner... an eagle?"
"Falshire," Towser groaned, and pulling off his belled hat flung it clattering onto the stone. "Mother of God, it is Earl Fengbald! Oh, Usires Aedon, save our prince! The whoreson bastards!"
"They ride down on Josua like a hammer," Jarnauga said. "And the Nabbanai are confused, I think. They... they..."
"Fall back!" Benigaris shouted, and Aspitis Proves at his side plucked the banner from the stunned arms of Leobardis' squire, riding the young man down beneath his horse's hooves.
"They are too many!" Aspitis cried. "Retreat! The duke is dead!"
Deornoth pulled his horse around and plunged back through the melee toward Josua.
"A trap!" he shouted. Fengbald's knights were thundering down the hillside, lances agleam. "It is a trap, Josua!"
He cut his way through two of Guthwulf's Boars who would have blocked his path, taking hard blows on his shield and helm, running the second man straight through the throat and almost losing his sword as it stuck in the spine. He saw a rill of blood run past his visor, and did not know if it was some other's or his own.
The prince was calling back his knights, Isorn's horn blaring above the screaming and clashing of arms.
"Benigaris has killed the duke!" Deornoth cried. Josua looked up, startled, as the blood-stained figure bore down on him. "Benigaris has stabbed him in the back! We are trapped!"
For a brief instant the prince hesitated, lifting his hand as though to raise his visor and look around. Fengbald and his Eagles had pitched toward the Naglimunders' flank, trying to cut them off from their retreat.
A moment later the prince raised his rein-wrapped shield arm. "Your horn, Isorn!" he shouted. "We must cut our way out! Back! Back to Naglimund! We are betrayed!"
With a blast of the hom and a great cry of anger, the prince's knights surged forward, directly into Fengbald's wide-strung crimson line. Deornoth goaded his horse forward, trying to reach the front, and watched as Josua's whirling blade snaked through the guard of the first Eagle, striking serpentlike beneath the man's arm, in and out. A moment later Deornoth found a host of red-surcoats before him. He swung his blade, and cursed; although he did not know it, beneath his helm his cheeks were wet with tears.
Fengbald's men, startled by the ferocity of their attackers, wheeled slowly about, and in that instant the Naglimunders broke through. Behind them the Nabbanai legions were in full retreat, flying brokenly back toward the Inniscrich. Guthwulf did not pursue them, but rather sent his troops to join Fengbald in pursuit of Josua's fleeing knights.
Deornoth hugged his charger's neck. He could hear its breath rasping as they galloped full out, back across the meadows and fallow farmland. The sound of pursuit gradually fell away as the walls of Naglimund rose ahead.
The gate was raised, a black, open mouth. Staring at it, his head throbbing like a beaten drum. Deornoth suddenly wanted very much to be swallowed—to go sliding down into deep, lightless oblivion, and never come out again.
The Green Tent
"No, PRINCE JOSUA. We cannot allow you to do such a foolish thing." Isorn sat down heavily, favoring his leg.
"Cannot?" The prince lifted his gaze from the floor to the Rimmersman. "Are you my keepers? Am I a child-regent or an idiot, that I should be told what to do?"
"My prince," Deornoth said, resting a hand on Isorn's knee to urge him to silence, "you are master here, of course. Do we not follow you? Have we not all sworn our allegiance?" Heads around the room nodded somberly. "But you ask much of us, you must know that. After such treachery as has been done to us, do you really think you can trust the king at all?"
"I know him as none of you do," Josua, as if burned by some inner fire, leaped up from his chair and paced to his table. "He wants me dead, certainly, but not this way. Not so dishonorably. If he swears safe conduct—and if we avoid obvious stupidity—then I will return unharmed. He still wants to act the High King, and the High King does not slay his brother unarmed beneath a flag of truce."
"Then why did he throw you in th'cell you told of?" asked Ethelferth of Tinsett, scowling. "Are you thinkin' that's proof of honor?"
"No," Josua replied, "but I don't think that was Elias' idea. I see no other hand but Pryrates' there—at least until after the deed was done. Elias has become a monster—God help me, for he was my brother once in more than blood—but he still has a queer sense of honor, I think."
Deornoth hissed air. "Such as he showed to Leobardis?"
"The honor of a wolf, who slays the weak and flees the strong," Isorn sneered.
"I think not." Josua's patient grimace was stretched tighter.
"Benigaris' patricide has the feeling of a grudge, to me. I suspect that Elias..."
"Prince Josua, with your pardon..." Jarnauga interrupted, raising eyebrows around the room. "Do you not think you are stretching to find excuses for your brother? These are useful concerns that your liegemen have. Just because Elias asks for parley does not mean you are bound to go to him. No one will question your honor if you do not."
"Aedon save me, man, I care not a whit for what anyone thinks of my honor!" the prince snapped. "I know my brother, and I know him in ways none of you can understand—and don't tell me he has changed, Jarnauga," he glared, forestalling the old man's words, "for no one knows that better than I do. But nevertheless I will go, and I need not explain any more. I wish you all to leave me, now. I have other matters to think on."
Turning from the table, he waved them from the room.
"Has he gone mad, Deornoth?" Isorn asked, his wide face heavy with apprehension. "How can he walk into the king's bloody hands this way?"
"Stubbornness, Isorn—oh, who am I to say? Perhaps he does know what he speaks of." Deornoth shook his head. "Is that damned thing still there?"
"The tent? Yes. Just out of bowshot from the walls—also well out of range of Elias' encampment, as well."
Deornoth walked slowly, allowing the young Rimmersman to set the pace his wounded leg demanded. "God save us, Isorn, I have never seen him like this, and I have served him since I was old enough to draw a sword. It is as if he seeks to prove Gwythmn wrong, who called him 'reluctant.' " Deornoth signed. "Welladay, if there is no stopping him, we must then do our best to protect him. The king's herald said two guards, no more?"
"And for the king the same."
Deornoth nodded, thinking. "If this arm of mine," he indicated the white linen sling, "is movable by the day past tomorrow, then no force on earth will keep me from being one of those guards."
"And I shall be the other," Isorn said.
"I think better you should be inside the walls with a score or so mounted men. Let us speak to the Lord Constable Eadgram. If there is an ambush—if even a sparrow is seen to fly from the king's camp toward that tent—you can be there in a few heartbeats."
Isorn nodded. "I suppose. Perhaps we can talk to the wise man Jarnauga, ask him to give Josua some charm to protect him."
"What he needs, and it hurts me to say it, is a spell to protect him against his own rashness." Deornoth stepped over a large puddle. "Anyway, no charm is proof against a dagger in the back."
Lluth's lips were in constant, silent movement, as though offering an endless series of explanations. His mumbling had supped over into soundlessness the day before; Maegwin cursed herself for not having taken note of his last words, but she had been sure he would find voice again, as he had many times before since his wounding. This time, she could sense, he would not.
The king's eyes were closed, but his wax-pale face worked ceaselessly through changing expressions of fear and sorrow. Touching his burning forehead, feeling the muscles flexing weakly in the unfulfilled rhythms of speech, she again felt as though she must cry, as though the tears welling inside her, unshed, would eventually force their way out through her very skin. But she had not wept since the night her father had led the army out into the Inniscrich—not even when they had brought him back in a litter, maddened by pain, the yards of cloth bandaging his stomach soggy with dark blood. If she had not cried then, she never would again. Tears were for children and idiots.
A hand touched her shoulder. "Maegwin. Princess." It was Eolair, his clever face folded in grief as neatly as a summer robe stored for the winter. "I must speak to you outside."
"Go away, Count," she said, looking back to the rough bed of logs and straw. "My father is dying."
"I share your grief, Lady." His touch was heavier, like an animal nosing blindly in the dark. "Believe me, I do. But the living must live, the gods know, and your people have need of you this moment." As if he felt his words too cold, too proud, he gave her arm a brief squeeze and let go. "Please. Lluth ubh-Llythinn would not want it any other way."
Maegwin bit back a bitter rejoinder. He was right, of course. She stood, her knees aching from the stone cavern floor, and followed him past her silent stepmother Inahwen, who sat at the foot of the bed staring at the guttering torches on the wall.
Look at us, Maegwin thought, wonderingly. It took the Hernystiri a thousand, thousand years to crawl out of the caves into the sunlight. She ducked her head to pass beneath the low spot of the cavern ceiling, squinting her eyes against the gritty torchsmoke. And yet, it has taken less than a month to drive us back in again. We are becoming animals. The gods have turned their backs on us.
She lifted her head up again as she emerged into daylight behind Eolair. The clutter of the daytime camp was all around her; carefully-watched children playing on the muddy ground, court women—many in the tatters of their best clothing—on their knees preparing squirrel and hare for the stew pot and grinding grain on flat stones. The trees growing close all around on the rock-studded slope of the mountain bent grudgingly to the wind.
The men were nearly all gone; those not dead on the Inniscrich or having their wounds tended in the honeycomb of caves were out hunting, or guarding the lower slopes against any move by Skali's army to finally crush Hernystir's battered resistance.
All we have left are memories, she thought, looking down at her own stained and ragged skirt, and the hiding holes of the Grianspog. We are treed like a fox. When Elias the master comes to take the prey from his hound Skali, we are finished.
"What is it you want, Count Eolair?" she asked.
"It is not what I am wanting, Maegwin," he said, shaking his head. "It's Skali. Some of the sentries came back to say he's been down at the bottom of the Moir Brach all morning, shouting for your father."
"Let the pig shout," Maegwin scowled. "Why doesn't one of the men put an arrow into his dirty hide?"
"He's not near in bowshot, princess. And he has half a hundred men with him. No, I think we should go down and listen to him—from cover, of course, out of sight."
"Of course," she said scornfully. "Why should we care what Sharp-nose has to say? Come to demand surrender again, I don't doubt."
"Possibly.'' Count Eolair lowered his eyes, thinking, and Maegwin felt a rush of sorrow for him, that he should have to bear up under her ill will. "But I think there is something else here. Lady. He has been there an hour and more, the men say."